Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tends to get a lot of grief whenever she offers her opinion about how the country needs a “strong Republican Party,” but I think that what’s currently happening on the GOP side of the House of Representatives is probably what she had in mind. There, the scene has devolved over the past week into the parliamentary equivalent of a Superfund site. It’s become rivetingly clear that Kevin McCarthy’s charges are hurtling toward a spectacular self-own—and a government shutdown. A slew of inconveniences and vaporized economic activity are about to land, hard, on ordinary Americans.
If history is any guide, it also means that political woe is on the way for the GOP. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters this week, shutdowns have “always been a loser for Republicans—politically.” But McConnell, who is clearly still capable of dispensing effective strategic advice in between his harrowing health episodes, is likely to go unheeded.
What help can be offered to a party that can’t help itself? Democrats partially powered their 2020 presidential campaign on the notion that Joe Biden cast a long, collegial shadow over Washington and was just the figure to help a wayward Republican Party break the fever that had engulfed it during the Trump years. But as Biden became more familiar with the Republicans he’d be working with, his opinions on the matter shifted rather dramatically. He ended up helping to author a successful midterm message that captured the GOP as they are: autocratic and beyond redemption. As McCarthy’s untamed hooligans steer the ship of state toward the chop, Democrats would be wise to stick with this instinct. They’re already doing the best thing they can do in this situation—nothing at all.
If there’s anything that Democrats should emphasize about the looming government shutdown, it’s the essential Republican-ness of it all. This shutdown is the pure product of the modern GOP, packed with antisocial weirdos and redolent of their inability to govern themselves or anyone else. Here, Democrats may have to joust with a media that vastly prefers to pin this kind of dysfunction on mushy concepts like polarization, or point the finger of blame—more nebulously—at “Congress,” as The New York Times did in a limp headline last week. More recent reporting has, happily, hit the ball more squarely, properly identifying “Republican infighting” as the proximate cause of the impending calamity.
To say that the GOP has lost the plot is perhaps an understatement. As The American Prospect’s David Dayen pointed out this week, the debate that Republicans are having with themselves has lapsed into pure abstraction, in which members of the party are now “arguing with each other over how much funding to cut in a one-month stopgap continuing resolution—not the budget itself.” Meanwhile, every sentient life-form knows that cuts of any kind make it a nonstarter with Democrats in the Senate, and the Oval Office.
But the prospect of Republicans troubling Democrats with some fruit of their legislative labors is a long way off, as their blockheaded negotiations have yet to yield anything that’s not a nonstarter with one another. Here, the GOP has flopped in operatic fashion: a Freedom Caucus–wrought deal immediately got spiked this week as a “giveaway to Joe Biden” by other members of the Freedom Caucus. How, exactly, is a budget proposal that Biden would veto instantly a “giveaway” to him? Don’t worry: No one in the GOP knows the answer to that question!
This entire exercise in self-torture really has little to do with line items on a budget spreadsheet. This is all just a primate dominance ritual: a steroidal sequel to the government shutdowns of the Obama era, in which Republicans convinced themselves that bringing Washington to a crashing halt could break the White House’s will. The only new twist on this old formula is that I’m pretty sure that, as far as the Republicans driving us into a ditch are concerned, Joe Biden is a secondary concern, if not an afterthought. Republicans are well and truly into their Lord of the Flies era, fully engulfed in the internecine purity-test battles I predicted were on their way. But not even McCarthy promising an impeachment inquiry was able to buy him enough goodwill to simply keep the government running.
It’s hard to see how any of this ends. Republicans seem bent on playing stupid games for the privilege of winning stupid prizes, with the most stupid prize of all being the poisoned chalice of the House speakership. Yes, Kevin McCarthy may finally be forced out of what has become the worst job in all of Washington—and the biggest problem that those threatening to knock McCarthy from his perch face is that one of them will have to take his place.
What Democrats should do now is simple: Do not interrupt this. There’s no need to get involved. What Republicans are enduring can’t be solved by rational people appealing to better natures that don’t exist. The only way out is for the GOP to eat shit, every day, until their bellies are full. Yeah, it’s possible that some dumb pundit will come along, afflicted with a terminal case of what Dayen calls “Washington brain,” to try to convince Democrats to “blink and offer concessions to avoid a shutdown.” The only thing Democrats should throw Republicans’ way is the old military acronym, KMAGYOYO—Kiss my ass, guys, you’re on your own.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.